Dealing with a Fat Shaming Massage Therapist

Say Something SundayI have found massage therapy to be amazing – most of the massage work I get is sports massage but I’ve also had the occasional relaxation massage.  It can be great, but it can also be a fraught situation – you’re lying on a table, vulnerable, while someone is touching you. It’s a terrible time to be fat shamed.  Recently, reader Lucinda had this experience. She shared her brilliant response with me and gave me permission to share it with you:

I’m a fat athlete too, and this last Saturday I ran my first Half Marathon. It was a great experience! Unfortunately, as maybe I should have expected, it was very hard for the world to let a fat woman run a half marathon without making sure I knew how unhealthy it was to be a fat woman and how much better my half marathon would have gone had I been thin.

Yesterday I had scheduled a recovery massage with my regular therapist, Joan. I’ve seen her about 5 times this year, as part of my preparation for the race, and also as part of my rehab for my knee (tendinitis). She has heard every story of preparation and planning for my half marathon, and has been a supporter of my efforts. I have felt a strong rapport and built trust with her.

During my massage, I told her about my half marathon experience. But instead of being supportive, this time her response was to give me unsolicited advice about how losing weight would really “fix” my running and then try to sell me some shake program that she’s been following and has lost weight on. So there I am, naked on her massage table, completely vulnerable, paying her $80 to work on my body, and she took that time to A, criticize my body, B, try to fix my “problem” which she, not me, has diagnosed and she admittedly is not an expert in, and C, then she tried to sell me something. It was such a violation, and ruined the massage for me, and left me feeling upset and angry all day.

Usually my response in these kinds of situations is to withdraw and just never go see that practitioner again. But yesterday was not like all those other times, because yesterday was the first time someone had said that kind of bullshit to Half Marathon Finisher Lucinda. All those other times, the woman they were criticizing was the woman who didn’t think she was capable, who believed that her body was an enemy she had to overcome, who thought she didn’t have what it took. Now I know, I have what it takes. I have surprised myself with how much I can do. I did not run that half marathon despite my fat body, I did it with my fat body. We are on the same team. And nobody disrespects the Team.

So I wrote her an e-mail.

Joan,

I wanted to circle back to our conversation about that shake program (isometrics?). Thanks for telling me about your own experience with weight loss on this program, I am glad you feel good about it. However, it made me uncomfortable to feel like you were selling me something during a massage, and that discomfort took me mentally out of the relaxation of the experience. Also, and this is more what I wanted to make sure I said, I did not appreciate you making a comment about my body, specifically that I needed to lose weight, while I was lying naked and vulnerable on your massage table. That felt like a violation of trust and also of your role. I had just finished telling you about what a victory running my half marathon was, and your response was to give me unsolicited advice about how weight loss would fix and improve my running, which does not need to either be fixed or improved, and which you yourself admit is not an expertise of yours. Both giving unsolicited and unresearched health advice, and making comments about a client’s physical body that reveal your negative opinion of that body, seem to me to be beyond the scope of your role as a massage therapist. My time on the massage table is time I dedicate to relaxation, self care, and recovery, and I pay a premium for it. It is not too much for me to expect that that time be free from criticism, bigotry, judgment, and condemnation of my perfectly normal, strong, healthy, and accomplished fat body.

Sincerely,

Lucinda

Now, as we’ve talked about before, with activism we can only give people the opportunity to question their behavior, we aren’t responsible for their reactions.  Happily, in this situation Joan took advantage of the opportunity that was generously given to her:

Oh Lucinda,

I am truly sorry that I made you so upset.  I hate that you had to take the time to write this note and may continue to carry anger.

First of all,  I can’t tell you how excited I am about your race and your success. I thought about the race many times during the weekend. It was an accomplishment that, as you said, changed the benchmark for you about what was possible.

I was very conflicted before sharing my weight loss experience and have been thinking about it ever since our massage.  You are absolutely correct the advice was unsolicited and unprofessional and I wish I could inhale the words back in. Lesson learned.

There is a check in the mail to refund the massage.

Run on!

I really appreciate Lucinda because not only did she advocate for herself, but who knows how many of Joan’s clients will be saved from similar negative experiences.  I think it’s also important to point out the power of the after-the-fact letter.  Sometimes we just don’t feel like speaking up at the moment and that’s ok, we have no obligation to engage in activism in the moment, or at all.  But sometimes we walk away from a situation and decide that we do want to say something and that’s when the letter or e-mail can come in really handy, and I want to really thank Lucinda for giving us a great example of how it’s done for Say Something Sunday.

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Published in: on March 20, 2016 at 10:09 am  Comments (17)  

17 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wow. Just wow. Is there some sort of prize for Say Something Sunday? Coz Lucinda just won.

  2. What an amazing woman you are, Lucinda, for writing that letter! I’m glad you got a good response and probably changed the massage therapist’s way of doing things for life. And super congrats for running that half marathon! I always admire people who can do long distance running – definitely not my thing.

  3. Hurrah for Lucinda for her half marathon and for standing up for herself that way and educating someone in the process!

  4. Yes, hurray for Lucinda, for her success with her half marathon goal and for speaking out! It’s helpful to be reminded that just because the moment has passed, it’s never to late to reflect and let someone know how their words impacted you. It’s a bonus that Joan seemed to hear and understand her with no excuses,and in doing so, she may have kept herself from losing a client. (I do think, however, it was unnecessary to thank Joan for sharing her weight loss experiences. I would NOT be pleased to hear about my massage therapist’s great new diet while on the table getting my massage!)

  5. I loved this…particularly the reminder that not only is it okay not to “speak up” in the moment; it doesn’t mean that the opportunity has been lost. In many cases, self-advocacy benefits from being removed from the trigger, and having a chance to craft a powerful statement. This is such a splendid example of that.

  6. This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing, and thanks to Lucinda for being amazing! As a fat half marathoner, this resonates with me so deeply: “I did not run that half marathon despite my fat body, I did it with my fat body.”

    • Yeah. It amazes me how many people will tell a fat athlete, especially one who is successful in really major CARDIO activities, that they’re not working hard enough at weight loss, and need to add cardio to their routine, to boost the metabolism and lose weight.

      Like, what do these people think the person has been DOING all this time? If training for and completing a half marathon has not resulted in weight loss (especially considering that healthy diet is PART of the training for the marathon), that body is just not about to give up any more fat. Maybe time to change your paradigm, hmmm?

      It was a fat body who ran that race, not a thin woman inside a fat shell.

      Also, congrats to all marathoners here! I’ve never been able to run much, due to weak ankles and clumsiness, and I do admire it.

  7. Well done, Lucinda! Running the marathon and your beautifully written email to Joan. But, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, your massage therapist actually made a REAL apology, not, “I’m sorry you feel that way” and replied in a truly humble manner. And sent a refund?! What a remarkable accomplishment! And maybe Joan deserves another chance.

  8. Woot for Lucinda! Here is Winged Victory!

  9. And I also think Joan deserves a shout-out. She blew it with her comments during the massage. AND when called out, she apologized appropriately and — appearingly — whole-heartedly. As someone raised white in America, my personal work on myself in the areas of white supremacy, oppression, and social justice can be awkward, distressing and insufficient on occassion. I appreciate being told when I stumble. Congratulations, Lucinda, on your half marathon and on speaking up!

    • Yeah, I did like Joan’s response. It looks like we have another possible ally.

  10. Wow! This letter was astoundingly wonderful, and I am so pleased that Lucinda wrote it and sent it. It is never ok for a massage therapist to comment on a client’s body– fat, scars, random 4 inch arm hairs, who cares, shut up. The only time it is ok to ask a client about their body is if the question pertains to preserving their health and safety within the time and space you share. Open wounds, moles that look cancerous, concerns about hypertensive muscles, ok. Otherwise, shh. We all deserve to feel safe in a situation where someone is being compensated to be with us a vulnerable, hands-on state.

    Props to Joan for doing the right thing, too– that’s a pretty powerful response, and I’ll bet the experience will change her approach with other clients.

    • I used to have a massage therapist who liked to discuss politics. While on the table.

      And he wondered why I had such a hard time relaxing. LOL.

      Now and then, he’d try to sell a “slimming” sort of massage, and I didn’t mind, because he was telling me about all my massage options, but I was only there for the body work, muscle therapy, so I didn’t do it. I finally splurged on a relaxation massage/body wrap, and he didn’t tell me in advance that it would shrink me (temporarily), and when I got home, my clothes didn’t fit. But you know, our bodies bounce back, so no big deal.

      Still, I did like him, and I trusted him. He told me he had seen it all, and he frequently worked with his eyes shut. He also helped me with a couple of issues, like a skin problem (“my wife has the same thing. Use X. It worked for her.”) that was just fine and professional.

      If I could afford to go back for relaxation massages, I think I would go back to him, because he made me feel safe and comfortable. Plus, I know his hobby-horse now, so I can always ask him questions about that, and let him talk about that, instead of politics. Much more relaxing that way.

  11. Bravo! This brought tears to my eyes as well. I want to be Lucinda when I grow up. Thanks for sharing this.

  12. “her response was to give me unsolicited advice about how losing weight would really “fix” my running”

    Lucinda, you completed a half marathon. Your running isn’t broken.

    Glad the apology was heart-felt.

  13. This was amazing to read! Lucinda did a great job in explaining why what Joan did was wrong and Joan did a great job in actually thinking about the situation, realizing she was wrong, and making amends for it. I can hope that more people can be like both Lucinda AND Joan. The world would be a much much better place, to be sure.

  14. Bravo Lucinda!!! Activism at its core is having the courage to relate feelings and experiences to others that will make them question their biases, which is generally uncomfortable and can lead to conflict. I think you handled it brilliantly, and I have to say that I am glad that Joan showed herself to be a person of integrity by not only apologizing, but refunding the massage. That was unexpected to me as I was reading, and I hope you and she have been able to repair your relationship. Way to go on your half marathon! You have a lot to be proud of.


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